An ability to speak Italian is an unexpected asset at a south Brainerd firm.
An international partnership is opening opportunities for Lakeland Mold Co., which is located in the Brainerd Industrial Park, and creating an exchange of technology, ideas and employees between Brainerd and Italy.
The result has been surprising even for company officials.
John Newhouse, Lakeland Mold president, came to Brainerd seven years ago from the Twin Cities. He said in terms of identifying international ties, people are more likely to think of large metro corporations than a 75-employee business in Brainerd.
But last month three Italians arrived here for a week at Lakeland Mold, a manufacturer of cast aluminum tooling for the plastics industry. Earlier, two Lakeland Mold employees spent a week in Nempo, Italy, at Persico SpA, a leading manufacturer of molds for the European Rotational Mold Industry.
Ron Folkeringa, Lakeland operations manager who went to northeastern Italy for the exchange, said the relationship is unusual and rare.
"Within this country I don't think it would ever happen," he said.
The lack of direct competition and mutual admiration helped. Folkeringa said they also had the same values of creating a quality product.
"It was just a fantastic exchange between the two companies, between the two countries," Folkeringa said. "It's not an experience I'd ever thought I'd be able to have."
In Italy, Lakeland Mold employees spent most of the time in Persico touring facilities and examining the business. Their interest centered on the rotational mold building facility.
"They basically opened the doors wide open to us," Folkeringa said, adding Persico shared both its strengths and weaknesses. "It was excellent from my perspective as for the exchange and the willingness to help each other out."
Folkeringa said the Italians said they found the Brainerd business' casting quality superior and wanted to glean what they could to improve their own product.
"At the same time we saw some things they do better than us," he said.
The Americans took more than 300 photographs of the Persico operation following the manufacturing process from start to finish. Persico shared data right down to its vendors for materials.
"Basically that whole week was characterized by openness and willingness to help each other out," Folkeringa said.
When the Italians came to Brainerd, Lakeland Mold shared information on how well jobs did financially. A fundamental difference between operations came with employee involvement.
"We have much more of a team environment, more open communication and planning," Folkeringa said of Lakeland Mold's operation. "And implementation of plans are distributed. There it's management driven and it's a few people more or less running the show and overseeing everything. Here it's more of a shared responsibility and they saw that as a big difference."
Similarities in the overall environment were apparent. The Italian economy is suffering as is its American equivalent in the industry, Folkeringa said. Those factors have driven companies to be innovative in looking at profitability.
The exchange left a few moments for sightseeing for both sides. Folkeringa parasailed off a mountain.
"That was an experience of a lifetime in itself," he said. "A lot of good things happened out of that exchange for both companies. The biggest thing is the long-term relationship between the two."
Here the international guests were treated to Gull Lake.
"They were awestruck at the beauty of what we have here and at the openness," Folkeringa said.
Connections between Lakeland Mold and Persico began through membership in the same trade association. Newhouse and Persico's owners met at trade association gatherings a number of years ago.
Two years ago they exchanged visits to each other's companies to see if the chemistry was right for further interaction. Newhouse said they found they have similar objectives, which helped build the relationship. Each found the other had developed a premium location in their respective markets without competing directly with each other.
Newhouse said a mutual admiration grew in regard to what each business had been able to develop in terms of business techniques and technology. So they created their own exchange program to benefit both companies.
More exchanges are expected in the next couple years.
Newhouse said they are competing with the Twin Cities when seeking well-qualified employees. And the exchange program may be one way to appeal to people who want an international experience in business but are looking for a smaller community setting.
The exchange effort was aimed at exchanging technology and ideas to create a meaningful process for both companies.
Newhouse said techniques in Brainerd are being used in Italy to assist product quality. Lakeland Mold is using Italian techniques to create greater speed in the business process and enhance some castings.
Persico has an automotive area and transferred an assembly technology from that division to its mold-making division. Lakeland Mold officials are looking to see what benefits that transfer may bring to operations here.
"They have some very interesting technology they have developed that is unique to the European marketplace that we believe will be of an advantage to us in serving the domestic marketplace."
Speaking two different languages is an obvious challenge. Both companies relied on an interpreter, which slowed communication. Newhouse said the language barrier required a little concentration on everyone's part but the process worked.
Claudia Persico, who runs the mold-making division at her father's company, expressed a strong commitment to the interactive relationship between the companies, Newhouse said.
He said that commitment could be seen in the company's decision to send factory floor supervisors, resources critical to Persico's operation, for the exchange program.
Persico developed an automated rotomolding machine that is on the cutting edge of technology, Newhouse said. The Italian company is interested in building and marketing the machine in the United States with the support and resources of an American company for the tooling used in the machine.
Lakeland Mold could be a resource to support Persico's initiative in entering the U.S. marketplace.
RENEE RICHARDSON can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5852.
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